Portrait of the Regency: Face to Face

It’s been said Sir Thomas Lawrence’s legacy was left to “fashionable, virtuoso photography,” and not to the art of painting. His portrait exhibitions attracted large crowds, satisfying the Regency era’s appetite for more than just of glimpse of the rich and famous.

Now one could gaze as long as one liked, without appearing vulgar, on the visage of the Prince Regent, or on the bosom of Lady Blessington.

Exhibition room at Somerset House by Rowlandson and Pugin

In her recollections of Sir Thomas, Miss Elizabeth Croft describes the artist’s interest in physiognomy. After years of portraiture, he became convinced of the power a person’s facial characteristics exercised over their character, and their actions.

Once he rehired a servant he had formerly sacked. It seems the fellow was unable to find a new position, and Sir Thomas knew it was because of his chin:

“..an organ of destructiveness so strongly defined I fear he will never get another place.”

Miss Croft questioned his faith in such reasoning when he showed her a portrait he had sketched of the alleged murderer, John “Murphy” Williams. This was the man who’d been jailed, pending trial, for the notorious Ratcliff Highway murders which occurred near present-day Wapping, London, within a space of twelve days in December, 1811. Much struck by the villain’s pleasant features, she recalled:

This post-mortem sketch of John Williams might very well be by Lawrence

This post-mortem sketch of John Williams might very well be by the artist

I never saw a more beautiful head. The forehead, the finest one could see, hair light and curling, the eyes blue and only half-closed; the mouth singularly handsome, tho’ somewhat distorted, and the nose perfect.”

— Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Letter-bag, edited by George Somes Layard, 1906 (with recollections of the artist by Miss Elizabeth Croft)

How could Ratcliff Highway murderer have such a beautiful head, she asked, when he’d:

“…destroyed not only a father and mother..but an infant a few weeks old in its cradle–and all this for the purpose of rifling the till in a little haberdasher’s shop!”

Sir Thomas chastised her gently, drawing her attention to the similarity of Williams’ chin to that of Governor Wall, hung for acts of cruelty while in charge of a colony on the west coast of Africa. In sketching both, he noted:

“..the formation of the lower jaw was precisely the same–very square, with a peculiar shortness of the chin, and partaking more of the tiger than the human jaw.”

Of his own chin, he admitted:

“..there is some appearance of Fortitude, but wholly unconnected with Reason. Indeed, of that Philosophy which can mould wishes to circumstances and subdue the influences of Passion to those of Fortune, this Countenance has not a Vestige (!)”

He looks a bit sulky, I declare.

Yes, I do see the Fortitude. And Passion.


Downton Abbey’s Byron

It turns out the Earl of Grantham might be a poet.

Newstead Abbey, photo by Andy Jakeman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Newstead Abbey as photographed by Andy Jakeman and  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

When a family must be evicted, one that has held their tenancy at Downton for many generations, Lord Grantham gropes for a reason to let them stay:

“If we don’t respect the past,” he says, “we’ll find it harder to build our future.”

“Where did you read that?” asks the Dowager Countess.

“I made it up.”

“It’s too good,” she admonishes. “One thing we don’t want is a poet in the family. The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron and I presume we all know how that ended.”

A teasing remark a mother might make to her prosing son.

Still, the Dowager Countess must have been keenly aware that Byron’s finances, like the earl’s, were a mess. Moreover, the great Romantic owned an abbey, which had to be got rid of to pay his debts.

Clearly there exists some parallels between Baron Byron and the Earl of Grantham.

And they are just too appalling to contemplate.

Lord Byron on his Deathbed

Lord Byron on his Deathbed

Regency Love: To Die For

Russell Square in London

Russell Square in London

Dr. Roget had not even begun his famous Thesaurus when he heard a terrible crash upstairs in his uncle’s house. Sprinting up the stairs, he found the man who had raised him like a son bespattered with blood. He gathered his uncle in his arms, appalled that such a nurturing figure had quite deliberately slashed his own throat.

Why had he committed suicide?

Sir Samuel Romilly’s (1757-1818) last words were a fragment, scribbled down before he succumbed:

“My dear, I wish…”

Romilly had been distraught over the death of his wife some days before. The news of her passing came to her husband at Cowes Castle, on the Isle of Wight. It was thought that removal to his town residence at 21 Russell Square might revive him. His daughter Sophia attended him there, but she had, alas, for a moment, left him alone.

He died, as they said, of an excess of sensibility. He died of an excess of love.

Regency society was in shock. Romilly had been a beloved barrister, a tireless opponent of the slave trade, a champion of the criminal defendant at bar. It struggled to condemn him, for such cases generally provoked disapproval. In previous years, as reported by The Times in the case of one Mr. Green: “..to be inconsolable over one’s wife, and to follow her to the grave–is madness.

There was much prevarication in those first reports. Donna Andrews’ Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England is instructive. Surely Romilly had committed his act in “mental delirium” and “under instant paroxysm of the brain.” Indeed, he had been working tirelessly for the good of a Nation. He cannot be blamed for a physical manifestation that had little to do with lack of character. Other writings were not so charitable. Remember how stoic Princess Charlotte’s husband had been in the wake of Her Highness’ death?

by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Perhaps some of his sensibility emerges about the mouth of this brilliant lawyer, I vow.

Sir Samuel Romilley by Sir Thomas Lawrence. A slight smile of sensibility about the mouth, perhaps.

These illustrations seemed wretchedly unsatisfactory. More writings, including poetry, continued to pour forth, as the Regency struggled to reconcile the Act with the Man. From much hand-wringing emerged the most soothing explanation, which became widely adopted. Here was a man who had defended the least among us, they said, with such devotion that he surely suffered from “an excess of feeling, or rather than by sentiment, which is the most binding one in our social system.”

Had he been less feeling, less sensitive to the tragic death of his wife, he would still be living.

In a watershed moment, Society allowed itself to salute what Byron once reviled (see Castlereagh.) In leaving this world, as Lady’s Magazine beautifully related, Romilly was both weak and wise, delicate and great, showing “human nature in a point of view, which commands at one and the same time our utmost love and veneration.”We cannot judge those who love and lose. We must only imagine their pain, and perhaps hope that we have had occasion to experience such exquisite joy.”


“To lose Lady Romilly, after an attachment so formed, and after years flown away in the tranquility of domestic joy, disturbed only by the pursuits of a splendid ambition, synonymous with virtue, was one of those shocks which must be left, undefined, to the imagination of such as know what it is to feel.” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 10, 1818

Regency Love: My Little Comet

It  has recently come to light that Sir John Lethbridge of Sandhill Park fathered an illegitimate daughter with Mary Jane Vial, who married her neighbor, the gothic novelist and anarchist (!), William Godwin. He was the widower of Mary Wollenstonecraft. Most of Godwin’s friends despised his new wife.

Charles Lamb called her a bitch.

Mary Jane’s daughter was then known as Jane. She was a hurly-burly, forward sort of girl who somehow managed to form a close relationship with her new stepsister, the reserved Mary Godwin.  No sort of adventure was beyond Jane. They say she promoted her stepsister’s elopement with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, if only to get away from home. Those six weeks they trekked across Europe are summed up in Jane’s observation of her prim stepsister:

From Rousseau's Confessions

From Rousseau’s Confessions

..we came to a clear running shallow stream, and Shelley entreated the Driver to stop while he from under a bank could bathe himself – and he wanted Mary to do the same as the Bank sheltered one from every eye – but Mary would not – first, she said it would be most indecent, and then also she had no towel and could not dry herself – He said he would gather leaves from the trees and she could dry herself with those but she refused and said how could he think of such a thing?

— from “Claire Clairmont and Mary Shelley: identification and rivalry within the ‘tribe of the Otaheite philosopher’s’ ” by Deidre Coleman

They were all reading entirely too much Rousseau, who liked to explore alternative domestic arrangements, particularly in his Confessions: La Nouvelle Heloise.  The female characters of Confessions seemed very like the two stepsisters. Julie was prim like Mary and naturally Jane saw herself as vivacious Clara. She began to call herself Claire, longing to act out Rousseau’s drama with her stepsister and husband, as a “household for three.”

But there was conflict, and instead it was a love triangle.

Shelley rather saw himself and his wife as a tranquil constellation upset by the importunities of his fair sister-in-law, disruptive as a comet:

“Comet beautiful and fierce/Who drew the heart of this frail Universe/ Towards thine own; till/ wrecked in that convulsion/Alternating attraction and repulsion/ Thine went astray and that was rent in twain.” — Epipsychidion

Their eventual destination, the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, was decided upon by Claire. She’d had an affair with Lord Byron and was now pregnant by him. Byron,protested to his disapproving half-sister:

“What could I do? — a foolish girl — in spite of all I could say or do — would come after me — or rather went before me — for I found her here … I could not exactly play the Stoic with a woman — who had scrambled eight hundred miles to unphilosophize me.”

Again, a triangular relationship reemerges at Claire’s instigation. Shelley absolutely worshipped Byron. Yet it was not he Claire brought to the Great One’s notice–it was her half-sister she would draw into his orbit, writing:

“[Y]ou will I dare say fall in love with her; she is very handsome & very amiable & you will no doubt be blest in your attachment.”

The trio eventually returned to England ignominiously and without funds. Much had been made of their relationship. Shelley’s friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, chortled that Shelley had two wives. Coleman offers another theory: that the love triangle was not seen by Claire with the male “on top.” Her position in the triangle was, predictably, at the apex point.

Scarlett - a comet, too

Scarlett – a comet, too

But what men may indulge, women may not dream of. Byron called her a “little fiend” and her unconventional ways served to isolate her from others. Her predilection for the love triangle may have faded by the time became a governess in Russia, for she spurned two men at once, joking:

“I must really take great care of my poor heart lest I should not only fall in love with one but perhaps with both at once.”

Regency Love: Infatuation

“Dear Sir–I have just returned (without reading it) a letter of Ly. F(alkland) & a parcel containing I know not what–…she is certainly mad or worse–I think you must really take some step or she will commit herself in some greater absurdity–I heard from her once before but did not like to trouble you again and soon–but really this is too bad–Believe me”

— 1813 Letter from Lord Byron to William Corbett, kinsman of Christina, Lady Falkland

Lady Falkland’s husband had been one of Byron’s good friends. In 1808, Lord Falkland and one Mr. Powell had parted friends after a night of drunkenness. The next evening, Falkland hailed Powell with a good-natured sally: “What? Drunk again tonight, Poggy?”

Chalk Farm, London, the site of Lord Falkland's duel, as it appears today. Photograph licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Chalk Farm, London, the site of Lord Falkland’s duel, as it appears today. Photograph licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“Mr. Powell did not relish the mode in which he had been accosted and, after a retort, Lord Falkland snatched a cane from a gentleman’s hand, and used it about his head.” — The Lady’s Magazine: Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex (1809)

The parties were unable to resolve their differences, with the result that Lord Falkland was fatally wounded in a duel with Powell. His widow, Christina, was left destitute.

Byron felt sorry for her and left a significant sum of cash for her to find in a teacup where she resided in Manchester Square’s “Durant’s Hotel.” He did so discreetly, to avoid drawing attention to her insolvent state. Thus he set in motion an infatuation fueled by her imagination, and his poetry.

It was not the money, mind you. It was the act itself–a furtive, secret offering, that no one was meant to see but her alone. That act was like a seed planted in her mind made fertile by the Thyrza stanzas in Byron’s wildly popular Childe Harold:

“Ours too the glance none saw beside / The smile none else might understand.”

Christina convinced herself of an intimacy with Byron that did not exist, yet seemed very real to her. The hero of the poetry was, like Byron, “world-weary and isolated” and she identified with him. Adding to that appeal was the notion he dared not publicly announce his love for her, nor would he dare ask she do the same.

Durrants Hotel, still in operation today.

Durrants Hotel, still in operation today.

She dashed off a letter to him:

“Tell me my Byronif those mournful, tender effusions of your Heart & mind, to that Thyrza, who you lamented as no morewere not intended for myself […] now my Byron if you really believe I could add to or constitute your happiness, I will most joyfully receive your handbut remember I must be loved exclusively.”

They say infatuation is a form of madness. Who knows if Christina had recovered from it by the time she died in Vauxhall in 1822.

But that was where they had moved Bedlam Hospital in 1815.

Persistent Prince – Part Two

To be fair, the Princess Charlotte had been embroiled in a failed engagement with the Prince of Orange, a failed romance with a Prussian prince (or two, depending on who you ask) and quite possibly (ie, understandably) had her head turned by Lord Byron and his turquoise ring.

Lord Byron in Eastern costume

In any case, she had no interest in Prince Leopold.

It seems likes a minor footnote, yet the following excerpt leaves one in little doubt as to the prince’s intentions:

“He paid many compliments to Princess Charlotte, who was by no means partial to him, and only received him with civility. ..and when we drove in the Park, he would ride near the carriage, and endeavor to be noticed.”

–from the memoirs of Miss Cornelia Knight, companion to HRH Princess Charlotte.

Rebuffed, Leopold went back to the field of war. Napoleon had returned to the Continent and must be defeated.  By the time the conflict was over, Princess Charlotte had come to her senses.

I mean, look at him!  What’s not to like?

In my Notorious series, Vivien and Diana joined in the speculation swirling around the unknown prince and his temerity to ask the Regent for Charlotte’s hand.

“I hear that Prince Leopold is very handsome.  Do you suppose Princess Charlotte picked him out when the Allied sovereigns visited last year?” Vivien asked.

Diana snorted.  “Not as random as that, my dear.  Russian intrigue, I’ll warrant.”

“And how would you know?”

Diana grinned.  “I’ve made inquiries.  ‘Twas the Grand Duchess of Oldenburg who introduced Prince Leopold to the princess.  Putting a spoke in Prinny’s wheel and his plans for the Dutch marriage, so to speak.”

“But the Russians were in favor of the match, I thought.”

“Ah, that’s the intriguing part.   You know how Prinny keeps Princess Charlotte all shut up at Warwick House?”

That circumstance never failed to arouse Vivien’s sympathy for the princess.  “They say no one is allowed to see her since she broke off with the Prince of Orange.”

“Except the Tsar’s sister.”  Diana tilted her head in amusement, the jaunty angle of her shako hat almost arch in manner.  “I had it at the Jersey ball.  Countess Lieven swore the Grand Duchess prevailed on the Regent to allow her to see the princess–on the assurance she would get Charlotte to reconsider the dutchman’s suit.”

“And her ulterior motive?”

“She was escorted by none other than your handsome calvary officer from Saxon von something or other.”

The Tsar’s sister may have had yet another motive.  Her own sister needed a husband.  And no one except the Prince of Orange would do.